Thursday, August 21, 2008

Getting Started - Picking the Right Agency

Getting started in tek requires a number of decisions on the part of a prospective student, not the least of which is, ‘Where to go ?’ and ‘Which agency to choose? ’ Do you go NAUI, TDI or IANTD and what about ANDI ? Which is the best ? Which has the standards ? Which better materials ? Which better pricing ? Which better course structure ? Which is agency is for you and is choosing an instructor as important a choosing an agency ?

Within the South African technical diving community there are few full time technical schools that focus only on technical diving. Some sport schools do have an in-house instructor who can offer a limited selection of technical courses, but their focus remains on sport divers. Mostly technical instruction is done on a part time basis through part time instructors who offer technical training on weekends. This means that courses are few and far between and often take time to complete having to be undertaken over a number of weekends. Indeed, Liquid Edge is one of two full time technical schools in the country and the only company that is not affiliated to a single agency. Which is where we pick up flak, surely we should have picked one agency and should be recommending this above all others ?

Our non affiliation to any one agency has been an active choice on our part. Our aim has been to provide a single point of contact for divers that crosses all the brands and in so doing provides the client with the ability to choose the ‘right’ course rather than the ‘right’ brand. Indeed, a large part of our goal as a company is to promote technical diving as a whole, regardless of who you end up choosing as an instructor, school or agency. This means we are the only school that has experience in technical diving across all the agencies (NAUI, TDI, IANTD and ANDI) at all levels of instruction (from nitrox, through trimix to expedition trimix and full cave). This means that as an instructor, Liquid Edge’s Gerhard du Preez has unparalleled exposure and experience which in turn means you get a holistic view of all the agencies… enabling you to choose the one that fits best for you (rather than the one we are punting).

There is another reason why we did not choose to represent a single agency… because no agency stands out from the others when it comes to actual standards (and standards are the first and most obvious criterion on which to make a choice). Of the list that we represent, there are only two agencies that are proactive about enforcing and protecting their standards – NAUI and ANDI both of whom do not believe in paper instructor cross overs and made Gerhard do the complete course, all aspects (including swims and breath holds). They also require two pairs of eyes on certification. So yes, we favour NAUI and ANDI from a pure standards view point, however there are other aspects that need to be taken into account as well, like existing brand loyalty (PADI and NAUI both generate students that are loathe to leave their brand) and of course quality of service and materials (books, c-cards etc).

Apart from their international standards, every agency has its own particular South African flavour that either adds to or detracts from our image and the quality of the service we provide when we interface with students. So, whilst we may favour NAUI and ANDI from a standards perspective we have to factor in cost (ANDI is more expensive) as well as the course structure (ANDI has more steps to get to the same place … which from a standards perspective is brilliant as you get a seriously competent diver, but it means it costs more and takes longer). Taking out ANDI, TDI, IANTD and NAUI have similar course structures so it takes about the same time to get an equivalent qualification. They also have a similar cost structure. Which leaves us with the quality of the materials and service that is available to us and our clients. Based on these criteria we prefer TDI as their materials are more what the average PADI diver is used to (professional and high quality).

Based on all of this, our recommendation is simple. If you are a PADI diver, then go TDI. If you are a NAUI diver, why change ? And if you are really sold on IANTD, then congratulations, we can provide you with excellent training that incorporates our knowledge of all the programmes in an IANTD format! In fact, when it comes to cave certification there is no single certificate that will guarantee that you can dive in any cave in the world which means that if you have an IANTD cave course you still need a TDI certificate and visa versa.

Indeed, I would argue that it is not so much the agency that creates excellent divers, but the instructor! What an agency gives you is a set of minimum standards that all divers with that brand will have. Good instructors add to the basics of their preferred agency giving you more than what their agency offers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From the Dive Show

I promise that I will not cheat this week and do a small dive show feedback instead of an actual blog :)

Firstly thanks to all the guys who came to visit us on the weekend. We were hectically busy and it was really great to meet people who are visiting our web site and our blog. Our schedule is looking busy right up until xmas and I am looking forward to introducing a whole lot of new divers to the amazing world of tech. To follow on from the show my blog this week will focus on getting started with tech (as that was the conversation we had the most J ).
If there are any questions you would like more info on/ answers on please let me know. Safe Diving ya all :)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Fins are Fins are Fins ! Or are they ?

Yes I know… an entire blog on fins ???? Am I finally losing it ? Perhaps, but then again fins seem to be cropping up in my conversations these days. You see I am a fan of the Scubapro split fins… and Gerhard (active technical instructor and firm believer in Hogarthian that he is) believes in the more traditional jet fins. Now as you may have come to realize, I tend to view all dogmatic idealogy (especially in diving ) with circumspection, so I get totally suspicious when I get told that there is only one fin for technical diving. The burning question is, is there really a fin that is superior when it comes to technical diving ?
It seems that most instructors and die hard hogarthian (and dare I say it, DIR) divers prefer the jet fin. Owning a pair I have to say it can not be a preference based on pure appearance because they look bulky, uncomfortable, heavy and squat. It is basic, basic, basic with a lack of flexibility in the foot pocket that simply screams sore feet. They are also limited when it comes to colour choice coming in black, black or black (seriously, must all technical diving be done in black ? Can we not get a little more adventurous and maybe try something in navy ? Or heaven forbid yellow, green or even yes..,wait for it… pink ?).
The jet fin boasts a design that is at least 30 years old and a philosophy of sticking to the basics and keeping it simple. Being manufactured out of negatively buoyant rubber they are heavy, which is not a bad thing if you are in a dry suit as it eliminates annoying floating feet and ankle weights. Their manufacture also ensures that they are stiffer than most other fins which makes them feel like you are wearing a pair of planks but having said that this rigidity does mean you have far better control underwater. They are almost designed for modified flutter and frog kicks (which as you no doubt know are essential anti-silting techniques). Because they are extra stiff they are much better suited to high current diving (not really an issue for us South Africans) not to mention propelling heavy and bulky (read drag prone) gear through water both of which are a definite plus.
The jet fin also has one other element of design which proponents wax lyrical about, the straps. One of the first lessons I learnt as a technical diver was to tape up my fin straps to avoid them getting caught on lines etc. The irony of which did not escape me when I found myself with one fin caught mysteriously on the line at 152 meters. Truly the last thing I excepted to go wrong on that dive was getting trapped on the line and I ended up with the choice to either cut the line (which I was not happy to do being as I was in a confined space in a silt out… yes, I could use the walls and positive buoyancy to get out but the risk of getting further entangled in loose line was not appealing) or I could leave the find behind. Which I did. I still do not know what it trapped me…but one of these days I will go back and retrieve that errant fin and hopefully find out what.
Which brings me back to straps. The jet fins come with the most primitive straps you can imagine. In fact they remind me more of Sean Connery James Bond diving gear than the gear we are familiar with these days. Firstly there are no convenient plastic clips for getting in and out (which incidentally is how I got out of my stuck fin. I shudder to think of trying to remove that fin without convenient buckle to release). Instead, the strap connections are moulded into the fin. This means that there is no leading edge groove to catch on line. The straps are also arranged in such a way so that the ends are on the INSIDE of the rest of the strap. This presents a perfectly smooth surface on the outside of the strap and clip area so entanglement is virtually impossible. The down side is that they are a pain in the but to adjust, but then again I think I would rather have that problem then be stuck.
To summarise, the benefits of jet fins (the preferred technical fin) are?
- They are negatively buoyant which is ideal for dry suit divers
- They do not have plastic clips so you avoid the situation where you can’t dive cos you have broken a piece of plastic
- The entire strap is designed to present a smooth surface and so avoid catching on anything
- The blade is firm allowing for better speed and less silting using technical finning techniques
The cons are :
- They are heavy and so more work than something like a split fin
- They come in black, black or black (admittedly not a serious con, but still)
- They do not have an easy to release clip which means getting into them and out of them when dressed in layer on layer of warm stuff is a problem, especially in a dry suit that does not have a telescopic torso.

So what are the alternatives ? My favorite fins are the SCUBAPRO SPLIT FINS. Firstly, they are light so you do not have the feeling that your feet have suddenly turned to lead. Secondly, on a straight scissor kick they are fast and effortless (I was seriously surprised when I tried mine out…spent my first dive checking that the fins were still there and being amazed at the turn of speed I could muster). Oh, and they come in something other than black (a nice neon green for starters). They are modeled on nature (specifically the tail fin of a Humpback whale) which is capable of shifting tons of water with a single stroke. And they are fast being designed for speed and minimal effort (features inclide a patented split fin propulsion system; patented drag reducing vents that reduce drag on both the up and down strokes and an extended sole plate to increase leverage and power output). Simply put a split fin is designed to produce more forward motion with less effort using a scissor kick, which is where the problem comes in.
The last finning technique I find myself using in a cave is the scissor kick because whilst it generates speed, it also has too much downward force and so it generates silt and silt is every technical divers demon. I have been using my split fins for a while and so manage to avoid silt… but at the cost of speed which is an issue, especially when you want to do a long exploration and are on a time line. The problem with the split fin is that the lightness and effortlessness comes from a blade that is just too flexible. This flexibility makes for comfort but makes it more work to move heavy bulky gear through the water.

In a nutshell, split fins are :
- Lighter with a more flexible blade which is a negative for technical diving as it makes floating feet worse and means more silt and less speed when navigating heavy kit around narrow tunnels.
- They do have easy release clips (which I am still a fan of) and do come in a variety of colours (yes, colour is important but perhaps not that important J)

The sad thing is that whilst I love my split fins I have moved back to the traditional jet fin simply because of their superior performance with regard to anti-silting and speed. Do I like them ? Nope, not much… yet! But I am sure after a couple of months I will no longer remember the light and pleasant split fins and instead be comfortable with what feels like two small planks that remarkably have the ability (against all appearances) to enable me to turn on a tickey and dive in a silt free world. The good news is that Scubapro makes both, so at least I have that.